The life of Dr Thomas Hussey 1746–1803: bishop of Waterford and Lismore

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Kingdom Books
ISBN 9780952456780

Reviewed by: Dáire Keogh

Prof. Dáire Keogh is Deputy President of Dublin City University.

There was a tendency in the older historiography to see the Penal Age as an era of uniform and unrelenting persecution, stretching from the hollow Treaty of Limerick to the Liberator’s great victory in 1829. Recent scholarship, however, has shattered such assumptions and, beginning with the work of Maureen Wall in the 1960s, modern historians are inclined to view the period as one of what Kevin Whelan called ‘endurance and emergence’, where Catholics adapted to the rigours of the laws, creatively exploited loopholes in the ‘code’, and grasped the opportunities that followed the first measures of repeal in 1778 and 1782.

The complexity of the period is reflected in Liam Murphy’s biography of Thomas Hussey (1746–1803), bishop of Waterford and Lismore. The book has had a long gestation and originated in a Master’s dissertation, supervised by Seamus Pender in UCD in 1968. Following a distinguished career in the public service, Liam Murphy has revisited his subject, and, while not a rewrite, the study is amended and includes a bibliography of recent scholarship. Significantly, too, while the title focuses on its subject’s time as bishop of Waterford, that episode represented just one stage of an audacious career. Hussey was, perhaps, the most cosmopolitan of the Irish episcopate, and his long career saw him engaged in diplomatic intrigue involving the major courts of Europe.

Biographies are often presented as the building blocks of historical narrative and analysis. In this instance, Hussey’s life illustrates the changing character of the century and a career that shatters notions of blanket clerical persecution in the Penal church. Documentation of Hussey’s youth and lineage is sparse, but Murphy places it in Ballytore, Co. Kildare, and accepts contemporary characterisation of his mercantile family as ‘respectable’.

Hussey was educated in Spain, where he obtained a doctorate at the University of Seville, but the tradition that he had contemplated entering the silent cloisters of a Trappist monastery stands in stark contrast to the clamour that characterised his life. Indeed, one critic observed that, having endured the silence of seminary (or monastic?) life, Hussey, like an effervescent ‘flask of Mumm’, was determined to impress at every stage of his varied career. The Victorian historian W.E.H. Lecky described him as the ablest English-speaking bishop of his time (1892), while the Waterford cleric Patrick Power (1935) believed that no Irish bishop since Oliver Plunkett had greater claim on the attention of ecclesiastical historians.

Hussey’s career was characterised by colour and controversy. Immediately after his ordination he was appointed chaplain to the Spanish embassy in London, a position that placed him within a bustling social circle that included William Pitt, Charles James Fox and Dr Johnson, and ‘uniquely for a Catholic priest’ he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1791). It was in this context, too, that Hussey established a lifelong friendship with Edmund Burke. The latter became his political mentor, while the cleric became Burke’s principal Irish correspondent in the turbulent decade of the French Revolution.

The London years represent a fascinating period in Hussey’s life, years that saw him undertake a secret diplomatic mission to break the Franco-Spanish Alliance in the context of the American War (1779). The mission ended in failure, owing to the intransigence of both Britain and Spain on the issue of Gibraltar. Significantly, while the commission illustrated the esteem in which he was held by King George and senior cabinet ministers, the failure of the mission led to accusations that the chaplain was a Spanish spy. Throughout his career, in fact, Hussey aroused effusive emotions in both friends and foes, and in many ways his life was marked by stark contradictions.

Apart from the diplomatic drama, Murphy uses this London period to provide an insight into not only the radicalisation of the English Catholic Committee but also the devotional life of the city. The embassy chapel served as a hub for the Catholic community; the elaborate liturgies were at variance with the myth of the Penal ‘church in the catacombs’, while the record of Hussey’s own sermons reflects the intellectual expectations of the community. Yet again, while admirers celebrated his ‘rational, temperate and philosophical exhortations’, the Presbyterian United Irishman William Drennan complained that Hussey ‘smack[ed] strongly of the bog-trotter’.

Such opinions paled in comparison to the reactions provoked by his subsequent forays into Irish affairs in the decade of revolution. Hussey played a critical role in negotiating the establishment of the Royal College in Maynooth (1795) as a bastion against the advance of ‘the French Disease’. As its first president, too, he secured appointment from Pope Pius VI as principal chaplain to the king’s Catholic forces in Ireland, while in 1796 he was nominated as bishop of Waterford and Lismore.

This combination, following the collapse of the liberal viceroyalty of Earl Fitzwilliam (1795), created a perfect storm, in which Hussey, whose confidence contrasted starkly with the acquiescence of the Catholic hierarchy, launched an assault on what he considered the real ‘jacobins of Ireland’, not the militarised United Irishmen but the Dublin Castle ‘junta’ and the Protestant Ascendancy.


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